Commentary Magazine


Topic: IRS Scandal

Will IRS’s Strategy of Destroying Evidence Pay Off?

If the latest revelations about the IRS are correct, then its officials have approached the abuse-of-power scandal with a clear strategy, pretty much from the beginning. They have been betting that, since their illegal targeting campaign against those who disagree with President Obama has had the backing of Democrats in Congress, they needed only a media strategy, not a political one. And that media strategy appears to have been: conceal or destroy potential (and actual) evidence, and assume that this activity will be less damaging than whatever is in the files they’ve worked to hide.

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If the latest revelations about the IRS are correct, then its officials have approached the abuse-of-power scandal with a clear strategy, pretty much from the beginning. They have been betting that, since their illegal targeting campaign against those who disagree with President Obama has had the backing of Democrats in Congress, they needed only a media strategy, not a political one. And that media strategy appears to have been: conceal or destroy potential (and actual) evidence, and assume that this activity will be less damaging than whatever is in the files they’ve worked to hide.

It’s a direct challenge to the media, in other words.

There are two aspects to the latest news. The first is that, according to Judicial Watch, the Justice Department believes Lerner’s records are backed up, but don’t want to put in the effort to find them:

Department of Justice attorneys for the Internal Revenue Service told Judicial Watch on Friday that Lois Lerner’s emails, indeed all government computer records, are backed up by the federal government in case of a government-wide catastrophe.  The Obama administration attorneys said that this back-up system would be too onerous to search.  The DOJ attorneys also acknowledged that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) is investigating this back-up system.

We obviously disagree that disclosing the emails as required would be onerous, and plan to raise this new development with Judge Sullivan.

This is a jaw-dropping revelation.  The Obama administration had been lying to the American people about Lois Lerner’s missing emails. There are no “missing” Lois Lerner emails – nor missing emails of any of the other top IRS or other government officials whose emails seem to be disappearing at increasingly alarming rate. All the focus on missing hard drives has been a diversion. The Obama administration has known all along where the email records could be – but dishonestly withheld this information. You can bet we are going to ask the court for immediate assistance in cutting through this massive obstruction of justice.

The second piece of news is pointed out by the New York Observer:

In two elusive and nebulous sworn declarations, we can glean that Ms. Lerner had two Blackberries. One was issued to her on November 12, 2009. According to a sworn declaration, this is the Blackberry that contained all the emails (both sent and received) that would have been in her “Outlook” and drafts that never were sent from her Blackberry during the relevant time.

With incredible disregard for the law and the Congressional inquiry, the IRS admits that this Blackberry “was removed or wiped clean of any sensitive or proprietary information and removed as scrap for disposal in June 2012.” This is a year after her hard drive “crash” and months after the Congressional inquiry began.

So the IRS attempted to destroy evidence of the emails after the investigation began, and those emails might still exist somewhere beyond the reach of the government officials in charge of destroying the evidence. Again, this is a direct challenge to the media: the IRS is expecting either a pass or scandal fatigue to play to their advantage. That is, they are hoping to set a precedent that the government can get away with heavyhanded abuse of its power so long as it destroys enough of the evidence once an investigation commences.

It is especially a challenge to the press if it’s true that the emails still exist but the government doesn’t want to go through the hassle of finding them. It’s actually more brazen, in some ways, than even trying to destroy them. It’s the sign of a government with nothing but pure contempt for the people. As Walter Russell Mead argues:

But if Fitton’s claim is true, then the IRS scandal really has arrived, and it is difficult not to conclude that we are dealing with a genuine constitutional crime. This wouldn’t be a matter of bribes or personal blackmail or sexual misconduct or any of the ordinary forms of corruption that are unfortunately far too common. Rather, it’s about the deliberate use of the power of the federal government to go after political opponents, and then a desperate attempt by others to cover it up. We’re still hoping that this story is exposed to a lot more light (and perhaps less heat), but the more we see, the worse and worse it looks.

Indeed, it would go beyond the sadly all-too-routinized forms of corruption, which are bad enough. The newest round of revelations describe a government agency (and its elected allies) not only thoroughly corrupted but also insistent on its entitlement to stand above accountability. The allegations warrant front-page headlines from the country’s major newspapers, surely. So where are they?

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More Stalling from the “Most Transparent Administration Ever”

The job of an inspector general is to root out fraud, waste, and abuse in the various government departments, boards, agencies, etc. It was the Treasury IG who blew the whistle on Lois Lerner and the IRS for discriminating against conservative groups.

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The job of an inspector general is to root out fraud, waste, and abuse in the various government departments, boards, agencies, etc. It was the Treasury IG who blew the whistle on Lois Lerner and the IRS for discriminating against conservative groups.

Under the Inspector General Act of 1978 IGs have a right to unimpeded access, “to all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other material available.” Only another federal law explicitly limiting access can override that. And yet the Obama administration is doing its level best to impede the investigations of several inspectors general, at the Department of Justice, the EPA, and the Peace Corps.

The situation is so bad that no fewer than 47 of the 73 inspectors general in the federal government, almost two-thirds of them, have written a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa and Senator Thomas Carper, chairmen of the relevant congressional committees, to complain about the stalling tactics and refusals to provide documents for specious reasons, such as attorney-client privilege. (As the government is the client, a government attorney has no right to claim privilege when another part of the government, the IG, asks for access.) According to Rep. Issa, the letter is unprecedented. “This is the majority of all inspectors general saying not just in the examples they gave, but government wide, they see a pattern that is making them unable to do their job.”

The lawlessness of the Obama administration seems to have no bounds and yet the mainstream media has shown little interest in this story. The “paper of record” has not covered it at all. Had this happened in the Bush administration, it would have been front-page-above-the-fold news.

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Smash the Regulatory State from Within

The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

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The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

With all the talk of reform conservatism, this is a more limited variant of the ambitious reform efforts gaining momentum. There are two categories of such reform, and the abuse-of-power scandals proliferating throughout the Obama administration’s bureaucratic power agencies make it all the more necessary to realize the opportunity they present to conservatives seeking to protect the public from big government.

The first has to do with regulations, and Texas presents a good example. Because so much of the Obama-era Democratic regulations are poorly thought-out and destructive, it’s easy to get the impression that when the government regulates something, it will do so in a deeply stupid way. But it doesn’t have to.

In April 2010, the Washington Post ran an interesting article investigating the following question: Why did Texas escape the real-estate bust? As the Post explained:

Texas’s 3.1 million mortgage borrowers are a breed of their own among big states with big cities. Fewer than 6 percent of them are in or near foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association; the national average is nearly 10 percent. …

Texan subprime borrowers do especially well compared with their counterparts elsewhere. The foreclosure rate among subprime borrowers in Texas, at less than 19 percent, is the lowest of any state except Alaska.

Part of the answer seemed to be restrictions on refinancing and home-equity lending:

A cash-out refinance is a mortgage taken out for a higher balance than the one on an existing loan, net of fees. Across the nation, cash-outs became ubiquitous during the mortgage boom, as skyrocketing house prices made it possible for homeowners, even those with bad credit, to use their home equity like an ATM. But not in Texas. There, cash-outs and home-equity loans cannot total more than 80 percent of a home’s appraised value. There’s a 12-day cooling-off period after an application, during which the borrower can pull out. And when a borrower refinances a mortgage, it’s illegal to get even a dollar back. Texas really means it: All these protections, and more, are in the state constitution. The Texas restrictions on mortgage borrowing date from the first days of statehood in 1845, when the constitution banned home loans.

It turns out such restrictions went a long way toward preventing homeowners from taking out the kind of loans and refinancing that increased the chances of default when the bubble burst, protecting many in Texas from suffering the same fate. It’s the kind of “smart” regulation that not only benefits the private sector but also can prevent future “dumb” regulations: the less prone to such crises states (and especially the federal government) are, the less demand there will be for the kind of “do-something” regulatory pile-ons and bailouts that follow those crises.

Texas is also, of course, a testament to the benefits of limited regulations in other areas of ownership and private property. Another part of the state’s insulation from the real-estate bubble was, as Wendell Cox explained, “the state’s liberal, market oriented land use policies. This served to help keep the price of land low while profligate lending increased demand.” Overregulated housing markets inflated prices and restricted supply. Texas got the balance just right.

So there’s “smart” regulations vs. “dumb” regulations. But the other category of this kind of reform has to do with the bureaucracy. Especially in the Obama era, policy is being made more and more by unelected bureaucrats. As the IRS scandal (and others) showed, the power and insulation from the public eye is a dangerous combination.

Conservatives have generally approached this by concentrating on the need to eliminate either bureaucratic agencies or the powers of those agencies. They should also, however, keep in mind that as long as those agencies exist, personnel is policy. Perhaps no one on the right has internalized this message more than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In a piece for National Review last year (still paywalled, alas), Daniel Foster wrote about McConnell’s attitude toward staffing decisions made by each party. When bureaucratic commission openings must be filled, it generally falls to the leadership. That means President Obama for the Democrats and McConnell for the Republicans. The Democrats still tend to view such job appointments as patronage positions. But McConnell has rejected the cronyism in favor of competence:

To translate his instincts into names, he brought in GOP veteran Dan Schneider. To look at Schneider’s government rap sheet — stints at the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Labor Department — you’d think he was a die-cast liberal. But when I spoke with him for this story, he said he likes to think of himself as a loyal conservative sent behind enemy lines “to monitor the radicals.”

Schneider came onto McConnell’s radar via the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao. When George W. Bush appointed Chao to head his Department of Labor, Schneider became her first White House liaison, and she gave him free rein to find conservatives to fill more than 200 slots inside the department. He impressed, and, after the Obama transition, migrated into McConnell’s office, where he oversees a sort of national conservative talent search with the title “Policy Advisor and Counsel for Nominations.”

Schneider operates according to a set of five criteria for screening potential nominees first developed by E. Pendleton “Pen” James, Ronald Reagan’s director of personnel management. First, were the nominees competent in the subject matter? Second, were they philosophically compatible with Senator McConnell? Third, did they possess high character and integrity? Fourth, were they tough? Fifth, were they team players?

The result, two or three hundred appointees later, is measurable.

Of course the ultimate aim for such bureaucracies should be to get rid of them or limit their power–something McConnell also engages in, as when he spearheaded the challenge to Obama’s unconstitutional recess appointments, which resulted recently in a unanimous Supreme Court rejection of Obama’s power grab.

But conservatives can fight those fights while engaging in limited reform from within the regulatory state. They don’t have to cede ground just because they wish that ground didn’t exist.

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Obama’s Awful Poll Reflects His PR Strategy

The latest Quinnipiac poll showing Americans believe Barack Obama to be the worst post-World War II president demonstrates that, in a perverse way, Obama’s PR strategy is working. The key part of the poll, which shows Americans overall coming to the realization that Obama’s presidency has been disastrous, is that a majority consider the president to be incompetent. Where would they get that idea? From the president himself, to judge by his characteristic responses to the manifold corruption and abuse-of-power scandals emanating from his White House.

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The latest Quinnipiac poll showing Americans believe Barack Obama to be the worst post-World War II president demonstrates that, in a perverse way, Obama’s PR strategy is working. The key part of the poll, which shows Americans overall coming to the realization that Obama’s presidency has been disastrous, is that a majority consider the president to be incompetent. Where would they get that idea? From the president himself, to judge by his characteristic responses to the manifold corruption and abuse-of-power scandals emanating from his White House.

Quinnipiac writes: “American voters say 54 – 44 percent that the Obama Administration is not competent running the government. The president is paying attention to what his administration is doing, 47 percent say, while 48 percent say he does not pay enough attention.” This is, in general, the president’s own strategy at work.

Back in May, the Washington Free Beacon’s David Rutz compiled a supercut of Obama and his spokesmen claiming he learned about various scandals from the media:

The latest ugly story that the White House claims Obama only learned of from the news is the VA scandal, where veterans’ hospitals around the country have mistreated or forgotten veterans seeking medical care.

“If you mean the specific allegations that I think were reported first by your network out of Phoenix, I believe we learned about them through the reports,” said Press Secretary Jay Carney Monday. “I will double-check if that’s not the case. But that’s when we learned about them, and that’s when, as I understand it, Secretary Shinseki learned about them and immediately took the action that he has taken, including instigating his own review — or initiating his own review, but also requesting that the Inspector General investigate.”

The story about the Justice Department seizing records from the Associated Press? The news that the IRS had deliberately targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status? The Fast & Furious gun-running scandal? That time the plane flew over Manhattan without authorization?

Obama learned about all of it on the news.

Obama has had to choose between two unpalatable options. Either he was aware of what he and his administration were doing, or he wasn’t. The latter is absurd and not remotely credible in some cases, but Obama sees it as preferable to the former, which would be openly admitting to the corruption the rest of the country sees unfolding practically daily.

Some attempts to absolve the president from his own presidency have been downright comical. Here, for example, was David Axelrod last year echoing conservative and libertarian critiques of the government in defense of Obama:

SCARBOROUGH: He’s saying to those at the University of Chicago’s school of politics, to students, to others, when they’re talking about looking at the IRS scandal and what an administration should or should not do.

AXELROD: Look, it’s an interesting case study because if you look at the inspector general’s report, apparently some folks down in the bureaucracy — you know we have a large government — took it upon themselves to shorthand these applications for tax-exempt status in a way that was, as I said, idiotic, and also dangerous because of the political implications. One prima facie bit of evidence that nobody political was involved in this, is that if anybody political was involved they would say: are you nuts?

Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.

Obama’s defenders are so desperate to avoid blame that they’ll even, as a last resort, take refuge in the idea that conservatives are right about the size and scope of the federal government. It’s true that government is so unwieldy as to insulate it from accountability and thus foster unmanageability and ultimately corruption. But this does not absolve the left. After all, Obama and his party want to continuously, recklessly expand the government even while claiming that doing so makes it impossible to govern properly.

And in this way Obama’s defenders end up indicting their hero (and themselves) anyway. The corruption they are enabling either helps them politically, as in the case of the IRS targeting Obama’s opponents, or perpetuates a fiction necessary to the liberal project, such as the Veterans Affairs scandal in which the failures of government-run health care were covered up rather than admitted while veterans died waiting for care.

Obama’s defense, then, has been incompetence. Perhaps that’s the silver lining in this poll, though also a warning: it might only be his incompetence that saves him from an even worse rating.

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One Chance to Hold the IRS Accountable?

Though the IRS and its commissioner have been on the hot seat in recent congressional hearings, there is little doubt that the agency and the Obama administration believe they can ride out the storm by stonewalling Republicans asking questions about the scandal and the missing emails that are now at the center of the controversy. But an otherwise obscure legal challenge to the tax-collecting bureaucracy may hold the key to bringing some measure of accountability to the nation’s tax collectors.

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Though the IRS and its commissioner have been on the hot seat in recent congressional hearings, there is little doubt that the agency and the Obama administration believe they can ride out the storm by stonewalling Republicans asking questions about the scandal and the missing emails that are now at the center of the controversy. But an otherwise obscure legal challenge to the tax-collecting bureaucracy may hold the key to bringing some measure of accountability to the nation’s tax collectors.

As we’ve noted numerous times here, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how and why the IRS singled out conservative groups for scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. But concern about this blatantly illegal political bias has been only compounded by the revelation that the emails of the woman at the center of the affair—department chief Lois Lerner—were lost in a mysterious computer crash. It now turns out that not only was the damaged computer hard drive recycled but that the agency also erased its own email servers. As has been pointed out repeatedly by IRS critics, taxpayers and corporations are required by law to preserve all of their communications for seven years in case they might be audited. But the IRS, a government body with nearly unlimited powers to wreck the lives of individuals that come under its scrutiny, doesn’t live by the same laws that they rigorously enforce against ordinary citizens.

But despite the suspicious nature of the missing emails and the fact that the agency cancelled the contract of the IT service provider at the same time that it lost vital information at the heart of this scandal, there seems little that critics can do about it other than to hound IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in hearings. Though his story is merely a sophisticated version of the old “dog ate my homework” excuse, Koskinen hasn’t lost his cool or cracked under the pressure. That’s due to what appears to be a thick hide and his confidence that congressional Democrats will always cover for the administration no matter how outrageous its behavior. Since Lerner has pled the Fifth Amendment in her attempt to avoid answering questions and Attorney General Eric Holder will never launch a genuine investigation of this affair or appoint a special prosecutor, it doesn’t seem like the angry Republicans can do much but to huff and puff at Koskinen or any other hapless IRS official that attempts to tell the same lame story he’s been trying to sell Congress.

But, as I noted last month, there appears to be one hope, albeit a slim one, for some measure of accountability about the IRS’s unconstitutional behavior: a lawsuit by a small pro-Israel group that was told by agency employees that its application for non-profit status was being scrutinized because of its opposition to the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

After years of stonewalling the case, the IRS was dealt a staggering legal setback last month when a federal judge ordered that the agency must answer the lawsuit. That response is due today. But the events of the last few weeks in which we have learned of the disappearance of Lerner’s emails makes it all the more interesting since as the defendant in the case, the IRS had the obligation to preserve all records relating to the alleged discrimination against Z Street. Since Lerner was the official supervising those who were dealing with Z Street during this period, that makes the missing evidence even more crucial. Moreover, as the plaintiffs pursue their case they will have the ability to compel IRS officials to testify as to their practices and produce all records. If they don’t that will only strengthen Z Street’s case.

Though Congress may not be able to do more than rail at Koskinen and the IRS, the Z Street case will not only open up a window on their behavior but, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote earlier this week:

Attorney General Eric Holder won’t name a special prosecutor, but there’s still plenty of room for the judge in the Z Street case to force the IRS to explain and answer for its “willful spoliation” of email evidence.

The spectacle of a ruthless tax agency acting illegally and with seeming impunity undermines the rule of law and faith in our democratic system. And since neither Democrats nor their cheering section in the media appear willing to rise up and pressure the administration to appoint a prosecutor who will investigate these extremely suspicious coincidences and missing evidence (which would have liberals screaming for impeachment if the two sides were reversed and a Republican administration behaved in this manner), not much may happen to anyone in the scandal and the agency may escape accountability. But the Z Street suit has the potential to reveal more about this scandal than all the committees in Congress may ever be able to produce.

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The IRS Scandal and Media Bias

During his appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin offered this observation:

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During his appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin offered this observation:

Because when any government agency, particularly one as powerful as the IRS, engages in something that even people sympathetic to the administration looks weird and suspicious, it’s incumbent upon all of the national media to aggressively ask more questions. The Republicans in Congress are asking questions. I think with a different administration, one that was a Republican administration, this story would be a national obsession. And instead, it’s getting coverage here and a few other places. But it deserves a lot more questions.

It certainly does, and Mr. Halperin deserves credit (as does host Joe Scarborough) for saying so.

Here’s a thought experiment. Assume during the George W. Bush administration the IRS had targeted MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood, the Center for American Progress, and a slew of other liberal groups. Assume, too, that no conservative groups were the subject of harassment and intimidation. And just for the fun of it, assume that press secretary Ari Fleischer had misled the press and the public by saying the scandal was confined to two rogue IRS agents in Cincinnati and that President Bush had declared that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” that had occurred.

Let’s go a step further. Assume that the IRS Commissioner, in testifying before Congress, admitted that the emails of the person at the heart of the abuse of power scandal were gone, that the backup tapes have been erased and that her hard drive was destroyed. For good measure, assume that the person who was intimately involved in targeting liberal groups took the Fifth Amendment.

Given all this, boys and girls, do you think the elite media–the New York Times, Washington Post, The News Hour, and the news networks for ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN–would pay much attention to it?

Answer: They wouldn’t just cover the story; they would fixate on it. It would be a crazed obsession. Journalists up and down the Acela Corridor would be experiencing dangerously rapid pulse rates. The gleam in their eye and the spring in their step would be impossible to miss. You couldn’t escape the coverage even if you wanted to. The story would sear itself into your imagination.

It’s true enough that one could focus on media bias every day between now and the Second Coming if one were so inclined. But rarely is the bias as transparent, and the double standard as glaring, as it is during the coverage of scandals. That doesn’t mean that here and there elite journalists don’t focus attention on liberal scandals. But for a host of complicated political and cultural reasons, the press as a general matter draws much greater energy and purposefulness from scandals involving Republican presidents than Democratic presidents. Even during the Lewinsky affair and the criminal cover up of it, there’s no way a Republican White House could have gotten away with the brutal tactics used against the independent counsel. Can you imagine if the Nixon White House had treated Archibald Cox like the Clinton White House treated Kenneth Starr? The press simply would not have allowed it. (See correction below.)

It’s too bad that only a few elite journalists like Mr. Halperin will admit the existence of the double standard; and worse still that knowing of it, nothing much will change. This is yet another case of “motivated perception.” The press can see precisely the same scandal and interpret it in completely different ways, depending on whether at the center of the scandal is a liberal or a conservative administration. And here’s the thing: many journalists really and truly believe they are impartial. Which is but only one reason why we live in an era when American’s trust of the media is at an all-time low.

Correction:

Of course Richard Nixon had Cox fired on October 20, 1973, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” The reference was a sloppy historical oversight on my part, and I apologize for it. (Leon Jaworski was the special prosecutor who replaced Cox; he was never fired.) What makes my error even more inexcusable is that just the other day I began to re-read a fine book, Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidencyand chapter 24, “The Saturday Night Massacre,” focuses exclusively on the Cox firing.

I’d only add that what happened to Cox actually reinforces my broader point, which is that the press made Nixon pay a fearsome price for firing him. Alexander Haig, then Nixon’s chief of staff, described the reaction as a “firestorm.” Robert Bork, then-Solicitor General and the individual who carried out Nixon’s order, said, “I knew that there would be a lot of trouble about the firing but I didn’t anticipate the intensity of it.” And Raymond Price, chief speechwriter for Nixon, said, “it was as if the world were coming to an end.”

This is how NBC’s John Chancellor began his broadcast that night:

Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

The reaction to the firing of Mr. Cox shook the foundation of the Nixon presidency.

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JFK and the Wrecking of the Presidency

The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

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The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Here’s the relevant exchange:

Bentivolio: My question is about self-interest. Do you believe that employees of the IRS can remain objective when analyzing the tax implications of groups and people that want them to lose their jobs?

Koskinen: I think so. I think that they’re professionals, they’re dedicated to–

Bentivolio: I have no doubt in their professionalism. I’m not asking you about that. I’m asking you about their neutrality and how it affects their objectivity. Do you believe that any person can sustain objectivity toward someone that they perceive as a threat to their livelihood?

In fact this is at the center of the scandal with the IRS and others. In recent months, the rise of the “government class” has received its due notice. Jonah Goldberg had an excellent column this week on the “naked self-interest of the government-worker class,” which gets at why this public airing of grievances is so uncomfortable for Democrats. Mark Steyn went further in warning that “when the supposedly impartial civil service uses those powers in the service of the ruling party” we are witnessing something akin to the “merger of party and state.” Others have noted, correctly, that the American presidency has become a bit royal for a republic–though without the nonpartisan class and grace of the queen.

But not nearly enough attention is being paid to the man who did more to bring this about than perhaps any other president: Jack Kennedy.

Kennedy did this in two ways, one of substance and the other of style. The substance was his executive order permitting the unionization of federal workers. It was not the first time public employees were allowed to unionize, but it was groundbreaking at the federal level and it opened the floodgates. In many ways, state and local public unions are more a drag on the budgets that dictate Americans’ tax bills. But federal unions have an important advantage: power.

The power of the Department of Veterans Affairs to stymie reforms goes much further than unionization. But that’s part of it. When the VA scandal hit, there were many suggestions on how to begin to put the pieces back together. The least surprising was reported by the Hill in late May: “The Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal can be solved by giving the department more money, a top federal employees union said Thursday.”

But where was all the money going that was supposed to be helping veterans in the first place? To the unions, as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel pointed out:

Manhattan Institute scholar Diana Furchtgott-Roth recently detailed Office of Personnel Management numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.). On May 25, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth reported on MarketWatch that the VA in 2012 paid 258 employees to be 100% “full-time,” receiving full pay and benefits to do only union work. Seventeen had six-figure salaries, up to $132,000. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the VA paid for 988,000 hours of “official” time in fiscal 2011, a 23% increase from 2010.

Moreover, as Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) noted in a 2013 letter to Mr. Shinseki, the vast majority of these “official” timers were nurses, instrument technicians pharmacists, dental assistants and therapists, who were being paid to do union work even as the VA tried to fill hundreds of jobs and paid overtime to other staff.

Federal union leaders were shaking down taxpayers to line their pockets with money that was intended to treat veterans. The only appropriate response from federal union leaders to this revelation should have been pure, unadulterated, soul-gripping shame. Their response instead was to ask for more money.

The style with which Kennedy helped wreck the presidency was in its self-conscious recreation of a palace and its royal court. Probably the best to chronicle this was Sally Bedell Smith. In her book on the Kennedys in the White House, her cast of characters is listed under the heading “The Kennedy Court.” Here’s her description of the royal atmosphere:

The Kennedys may have been Democrats, full of compassion for the poor and dispossessed, but the image of Jack and Jackie as king and queen surrounded by their court had occurred to many people familiar with the administration. The British political philosopher and formidable Oxford don Isaiah Berlin—a guest at several private White House dinners—saw the Kennedys as “Bonapartist,” finding parallels in Napoleon’s brothers who, like Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general and Edward M. Kennedy as U.S. senator, held responsible positions in the government. …

The columnist Stewart Alsop complained after one year of the Kennedy administration, “The place is lousy with courtiers and ladies in waiting—actual or would be.” As with court life in earlier centuries, the Kennedy entourage made a stately progress: from the White House to expensive homes in the Virginia hunt country, to Palm Beach, Hyannis Port, and Newport—all playgrounds for the rich and privileged. “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said Oleg Cassini, her official dress designer and self-described “de facto courtier close to the king and queen.” “She said this many times,” Cassini added.

What JFK did, then, was to lay the foundation for a federal government with an explicitly royalist identity and a unionized government class with job security but no accountability, and who had the power to disrupt the lives and the rights of the citizens who had other ideas about American democracy. There has been a tendency to romanticize the Kennedy presidency, not just by liberals who miss the monarchical elitism but by conservatives who appreciate Kennedy’s tax cutting and internationalist foreign policy. The nostalgia is misplaced, for the Kennedy presidency was damaging to the American project and we are still paying for it today.

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Ryan to IRS Commissioner: “This is Unbelievable. … Nobody Believes You.”

In a hearing about the IRS targeting of conservative groups, Representative Paul Ryan–during his exchange with IRS Commission John Koskinen–leveled a devastating criticism of Koskinen, essentially accusing him of being a liar. Mr. Ryan runs through the layers of deception, and pattern of abuse, we’re seen from the IRS so far, which now includes the fantastic claim that it has lost ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s hard drive with emails relevant to the (illegal) audits of conservative groups. Lois Lerner’s crashed hard drive has been recycled, we’re now being told. (The Internal Revenue Service also revealed earlier this week that it can’t produce emails from six more employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups, including from Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to former IRS commissioner Steven Miller, who was fired in the wake of the targeting scandal.)

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In a hearing about the IRS targeting of conservative groups, Representative Paul Ryan–during his exchange with IRS Commission John Koskinen–leveled a devastating criticism of Koskinen, essentially accusing him of being a liar. Mr. Ryan runs through the layers of deception, and pattern of abuse, we’re seen from the IRS so far, which now includes the fantastic claim that it has lost ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s hard drive with emails relevant to the (illegal) audits of conservative groups. Lois Lerner’s crashed hard drive has been recycled, we’re now being told. (The Internal Revenue Service also revealed earlier this week that it can’t produce emails from six more employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups, including from Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to former IRS commissioner Steven Miller, who was fired in the wake of the targeting scandal.)

And here’s Ryan’s colleague, Kevin Brady, grilling Mr. Koskinen, saying this (h/t: HotAir.com):

Mr. Commissioner, why, at this point, why should anyone believe you? The IRS denied for two years targeting of Americans based on their political beliefs. That wasn’t the truth. They said it was a few rogue agents in Cincinnati. That wasn’t the truth. You said you were targeting liberal organizations. That wasn’t the truth. Then you assured us you would provide us all the emails in May and that wasn’t the truth. And today, you’re telling us out of thousands of IRS computers, the one that lost the emails was a person of interest in an ongoing congressional investigation. And that is not the truth either. This is the most corrupt and deceitful IRS in [American] history.

It’s fairly obvious, I think, that what has occurred is the destruction of evidence related to a congressional investigation about the abuse of power of one of the two most powerful agencies in government. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal makes the case that “The IRS tea-party audit story isn’t Watergate; it’s worse than Watergate. The Watergate break-in was the professionals of the party in power going after the party professionals of the party out of power. The IRS scandal is the party in power going after the most average Americans imaginable.”

Whether it turns out to be worse than Watergate is impossible to know at this point. But it is bad enough. One question–not the only one, but an important one–is whether and how deep this scandal reaches into the rest of the Obama administration, including the Obama White House.

Inquiring minds want to know.

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Nothing “Reasonable” About IRS Cock-and-Bull Computer Story

Yesterday, new White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest characterized the Internal Revenue Service’s claim that all of Lois Lerner’s emails were lost as “entirely reasonable.” Adopting the same combative tone that made his predecessor Jay Carney an embarrassment to the president, Earnest declared that any questions about why it is that the IRS suddenly finds itself unable to comply with requests from Congress for this information were “not particularly believable” and sarcastically asked if anyone had ever heard of a computer crash.

Of course, as our John Steele Gordon noted on Sunday, Earnest’s declaration that the loss of the email is “a fact,” is almost certainly not true. Investigators should be able to find the emails on the agency’s server. That is a “fact” that IRS Commissioner John Koskinen actually admitted to earlier in the year when testifying before Congress when he promised to comply with requests for these communications and other information that might shed some light on what lay behind Lerner’s orders to her staff to target Tea Party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Koskinen will again be on the hot seat next week when he is hauled before two House committees to explain why he thinks he can get away with a classic “dog ate my homework excuse” instead of producing the emails. But the agency’s decision to announce that a mysterious computer crash devoured all of Lerner’s work emails during a crucial two year period under investigation in a Friday afternoon news dump was more than just an effort to bury the story. The administration must understand that this development is bound to fuel continuing interest in a story they thought was largely finished. But the highly suspicious disappearance of the emails will do more than just raise Watergate comparisons. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the possible destruction of evidence that might link the IRS’ illegal behavior to other branches of the government leaves open the possibility that this scandal may just be getting started.

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Yesterday, new White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest characterized the Internal Revenue Service’s claim that all of Lois Lerner’s emails were lost as “entirely reasonable.” Adopting the same combative tone that made his predecessor Jay Carney an embarrassment to the president, Earnest declared that any questions about why it is that the IRS suddenly finds itself unable to comply with requests from Congress for this information were “not particularly believable” and sarcastically asked if anyone had ever heard of a computer crash.

Of course, as our John Steele Gordon noted on Sunday, Earnest’s declaration that the loss of the email is “a fact,” is almost certainly not true. Investigators should be able to find the emails on the agency’s server. That is a “fact” that IRS Commissioner John Koskinen actually admitted to earlier in the year when testifying before Congress when he promised to comply with requests for these communications and other information that might shed some light on what lay behind Lerner’s orders to her staff to target Tea Party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Koskinen will again be on the hot seat next week when he is hauled before two House committees to explain why he thinks he can get away with a classic “dog ate my homework excuse” instead of producing the emails. But the agency’s decision to announce that a mysterious computer crash devoured all of Lerner’s work emails during a crucial two year period under investigation in a Friday afternoon news dump was more than just an effort to bury the story. The administration must understand that this development is bound to fuel continuing interest in a story they thought was largely finished. But the highly suspicious disappearance of the emails will do more than just raise Watergate comparisons. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the possible destruction of evidence that might link the IRS’ illegal behavior to other branches of the government leaves open the possibility that this scandal may just be getting started.

Earnest’s confidence that he could brazenly dismiss questions about Lerner’s emails stems from the administration’s belief that the IRS story has fundamentally changed in the last year. Initially, there was bipartisan outrage over the agency’s clearly outrageous and politically motivated practices. But within weeks, the media moved on and the only engine riving the story became the efforts of House Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa, whose awkward investigatory style was easy to dismiss as partisan hackwork. The foolish confrontation between Issa and Democrat Elijah Cummings aided the efforts of the White House and its liberal media cheerleaders to claim that the entire issue was a “phony scandal” rather than a fundamental threat to the rule of law as even some liberals had agreed when the story first broke.

Comparisons to Watergate are always going to fall short and there is a vast difference between the infamous erasure of 18 minutes of White House tape recordings by Richard Nixon’s secretary and whatever it was that happened to Lois Lerner’s computer. But obstruction of justice is not a small thing especially when its impact is to effectively shut down a Congressional probe aimed at finding out why exactly Lerner choose to single out Tea Partiers and conservatives. It may be that there is nothing of interest in her emails, or at least nothing that connects anyone else in the administration to what happened at the IRS. But until we see those communications, it is hardly unreasonable for the president’s critics to wonder aloud at the amazing coincidence that led the supposedly non-partisan tax agency to give the business to Obama’s foes.

Were this really a phony scandal with, as the White House insists, nothing that connected high ranking figures to what was going on at the IRS, then it would behoove the administration to get all the information out on this question as soon as possible. Instead, the government has stalled Congress for a year only to then come up with an obviously lame and almost certainly false excuse about a single hard drive crash gobbling up all those emails.

It doesn’t take much imagination to ponder to what the response of Democrats and liberal organs like the New York Times would be if, instead of President Obama and his acolytes, it were George W. Bush’s staffers that were claiming that it was “reasonable” that information had merely vanished in a cloud of Internet smoke. We don’t need latter-day heroic Woodwards and Bernsteins to procure a new Deep Throat to come up with the answers to the obvious questions that the IRS’ cock-and-bull story raises. We just need a run-of-the-mill free press dedicated to ferreting out the truth about a government scandal and some honest Democrats prepared to join with Republicans in asking uncomfortable questions rather than covering for their party’s leaders. Any takers?

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Are Lois Lerner’s Emails Really Lost?

I wrote on Friday how the IRS, after a full year of stonewalling, sent a letter to Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that a vast trove of emails between Lois Lerner and government agencies outside the IRS, including the White House, had been lost thanks to a hard drive crash on her computer. Friday afternoons, of course, are when people who want something to go unnoticed make a public announcement about it.

This did not go unnoticed, however. As you can see from the TaxProfBlog, which has been covering the unfolding IRS scandal like a glove, all the major news outlets ran stories on it, even such liberal bastions as ABC News and the Huffington Post. Its similarity to the event that radically shifted public opinion about Watergate—the conveniently missing 18 1/2 minutes of tape—was just too strong. However, the New York Times, ever increasingly the public-relations arm of the Obama administration, has run nothing whatever in the print editions and, indeed, the only mention of it whatsoever was on a blog on the Times website that quotes what other op-ed pages are saying, a one-paragraph overview of the conservative Washington Examiner’s editorial. The Washington Post did not do a story of its own, settling for AP coverage about a potentially huge story taking place in its own backyard. Both of these legendary American newspapers are going to be severely embarrassed if this turns into a major scandal, as it well may.

The reason it may is because there are very good reasons to doubt the idea that these emails are irretrievably lost due to a simple crash of a personal computer’s hard drive.  For one thing, downloading an email from an email server does not cause the email to be deleted from the server itself. And a lawyer in the Department of Justice, who understandably wishes to be anonymous, reports that government email servers are automatically backed up every night. So both Lerner’s computer and the email server would have had to crash for these emails to have been lost. That would be some coincidence.

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I wrote on Friday how the IRS, after a full year of stonewalling, sent a letter to Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that a vast trove of emails between Lois Lerner and government agencies outside the IRS, including the White House, had been lost thanks to a hard drive crash on her computer. Friday afternoons, of course, are when people who want something to go unnoticed make a public announcement about it.

This did not go unnoticed, however. As you can see from the TaxProfBlog, which has been covering the unfolding IRS scandal like a glove, all the major news outlets ran stories on it, even such liberal bastions as ABC News and the Huffington Post. Its similarity to the event that radically shifted public opinion about Watergate—the conveniently missing 18 1/2 minutes of tape—was just too strong. However, the New York Times, ever increasingly the public-relations arm of the Obama administration, has run nothing whatever in the print editions and, indeed, the only mention of it whatsoever was on a blog on the Times website that quotes what other op-ed pages are saying, a one-paragraph overview of the conservative Washington Examiner’s editorial. The Washington Post did not do a story of its own, settling for AP coverage about a potentially huge story taking place in its own backyard. Both of these legendary American newspapers are going to be severely embarrassed if this turns into a major scandal, as it well may.

The reason it may is because there are very good reasons to doubt the idea that these emails are irretrievably lost due to a simple crash of a personal computer’s hard drive.  For one thing, downloading an email from an email server does not cause the email to be deleted from the server itself. And a lawyer in the Department of Justice, who understandably wishes to be anonymous, reports that government email servers are automatically backed up every night. So both Lerner’s computer and the email server would have had to crash for these emails to have been lost. That would be some coincidence.

John Hinderaker at Power Line has a great deal of experience in accessing emails in the course of legal discovery. He’s blunt: “The Obama administration is lying, and lying in a remarkably transparent way.” He points out that even if the email server were erased after a period of time, the IRS has elaborate protocols for the permanent storage of all electronic communications. Hinderaker also notes that even if a hard drive crashes, the information stored on it can usually be recovered. He politely offers to help:

One more thing: if it were true that the only copies of many thousands of emails existed on Lois Lerner’s desktop computer–which is certainly not true–and that computer’s hard drive crashed in 2011, the emails would in all probability be recoverable. Even if Lerner threw her computer into a lake, which has been known to happen. One of the world’s most famous data recovery firms is located here in the Twin Cities, and I would be happy to send Barack Obama the name and phone number of a person who, in all likelihood, could recover Lerner’s “lost” emails from her supposedly crashed hard drive. Even if the computer has been lying at the bottom of a lake since 2011.

Fox and Friends this morning reported that in addition to nightly email backups and permanent storage on another medium, IRS regulations require individuals to make paper backups of anything that falls under the rubric of a “federal record.”

The administration is desperately hoping that by making this public on a summer Friday afternoon, it will all have blown over by Monday morning, especially with the onrush of other news stories, such as the gathering debacle in Iraq, and the latter-day children’s crusade on our southern border. I doubt that will happen. I think enough elements of the media smell blood. If the Obama administration is caught in a bald-faced lie here, its political support might well collapse, just as Nixon’s did in the fall of 1973. That would sell a lot of newspapers.

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Like Jimmy Carter? How About Like Richard Nixon?

Many people think that Barack Obama’s presidency, with his inept, if not disastrous foreign policy, and his ineffectual or counterproductive domestic programs can be aptly compared with Jimmy Carter’s. When Carter ran for reelection in 1980, it should be remembered, he carried fewer states than had Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Now, it seems, it’s worse. Today, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp issued a press release announcing that the IRS claims to have lost all the emails that Lois Lerner sent to or received from government agencies, including the White House, between January 2009 and April 2011.  They have only her internal emails (H/T Instapundit). How very convenient.

Camp, as you can well imagine, is not amused:

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Many people think that Barack Obama’s presidency, with his inept, if not disastrous foreign policy, and his ineffectual or counterproductive domestic programs can be aptly compared with Jimmy Carter’s. When Carter ran for reelection in 1980, it should be remembered, he carried fewer states than had Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Now, it seems, it’s worse. Today, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp issued a press release announcing that the IRS claims to have lost all the emails that Lois Lerner sent to or received from government agencies, including the White House, between January 2009 and April 2011.  They have only her internal emails (H/T Instapundit). How very convenient.

Camp, as you can well imagine, is not amused:

The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’s response to Congressional inquiries.  There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the Inspector General.

Just a short time ago, Commissioner Koskinen promised to produce all Lerner documents.  It appears now that was an empty promise.  Frankly, these are the critical years of the targeting of conservative groups that could explain who knew what when, and what, if any, coordination there was between agencies.  Instead, because of this loss of documents, we are conveniently left to believe that Lois Lerner acted alone.

So it would seem that not only does the Obama administration exhibit the worst attributes of the Carter administration, it also exhibits the worst attributes of the Nixon administration. No one believed Nixon’s explanation for the infamous missing 18 1/2 minutes of oval office tapes. I doubt many will believe that this is an accident too.

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Phony Scandal? Courts Open Window on the IRS’s Political Litmus Tests

Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

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Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial page noted yesterday:

This ruling will force the IRS to open its books on the procedures it used and decisions it made reviewing Z Street’s tax-exempt application, procedures it has tried to keep shrouded. As the case proceeds, Z Street’s attorneys can seek depositions from many who have been part of the larger attempt to sit on similar applications by other conservative groups.

In other words, this case may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the IRS’s politically prejudicial policies. If an IRS agent can reject or stall a pro-Israel group’s application on the grounds that “these cases are being sent to a special unit in the D.C. office to determine whether the organization’s activities contradict the Administration’s public policies,” then no group, no matter what its political orientation or cause is safe from being subjected to a political litmus test designed by any administration of either political party.

Z Street’s Marcus deserves praise for having the guts to persist in her challenge to the government for years even though the media had little interest in publicizing what appeared to be an outrageous example of how the IRS had become politicized under the Obama presidency. Last year Marcus learned she wasn’t alone when the news about the Tea Party broke. Now, as her legal process unfolds, Americans may get a better idea about how broken the system has become.

Using the IRS to punish political foes is blatantly illegal. If, as we suspect, the Z Street case reveals the sort of internal email traffic that will reveal how widespread this practice has become in the last five years, perhaps even a liberal mainstream press that still thinks the problems at the IRS are a “phony scandal” will start to pay attention.

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Absentee President Is Bad for Veterans’ Health … And the Country’s

What’s the difference between the growing scandal about the mistreatment of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and previous Obama administration problems at the IRS, the Justice Department (“Fast and Furious” and spying on the press), and the State Department (Benghazi)? The answer is that rather than members of Congress and the press dividing along partisan lines in their discussions of the outrages at the VA, there is a bipartisan consensus that the business-as-usual atmosphere at the agency that has allowed abuses to go on for years despite public warnings of trouble must end. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other to express anger at Secretary Eric Shinseki at his failure to either detect or halt the abuse of veterans needing medical care. That’s a positive development since the focus of our public officials on the affairs of government should always be on correcting misbehavior whether or not someone’s political ox is being gored.

But there is one thing about the VA scandal that is similar to past administration problems. Despite Shinseki’s poor performance in his office—he’s been head of the VA since the president took office, meaning that he’s presided over years of patient problems—up until the scandal completely blew up there was no sign of any displeasure about him from the White House. And even once it became clear that he had utterly failed to deal with these problems and had seemed to have little idea of how to even spin this disaster—as yesterday’s Senate hearings made clear—his job appeared to be safe.

As with everything else that is bad that goes on in Washington in the age of Obama, the VA scandal appears to be something that the president just reads about in the newspapers. Like the illegal discrimination against conservative groups at the IRS and the Justice Department’s spying practices and, most memorably, the mismanagement and incompetence at the Department of Health and Human Services during the ObamaCare rollout, the president’s management style is absentee and often downright uninterested in performance. Rather than react to criticism of his administration by cleaning house when necessary, his instinct—even on issues like the VA where partisanship is not a factor—is to hunker down and stonewall. While the focus on Obama’s efforts to expand the reach of government power and to downgrade our alliances with friends rightly gets most of the attention from critics, the VA scandal and the slow and incoherent response from the White House demonstrates that the president’s inability to govern effectively is potentially as dangerous as his misconceptions about the purpose of government or American power.

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What’s the difference between the growing scandal about the mistreatment of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and previous Obama administration problems at the IRS, the Justice Department (“Fast and Furious” and spying on the press), and the State Department (Benghazi)? The answer is that rather than members of Congress and the press dividing along partisan lines in their discussions of the outrages at the VA, there is a bipartisan consensus that the business-as-usual atmosphere at the agency that has allowed abuses to go on for years despite public warnings of trouble must end. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other to express anger at Secretary Eric Shinseki at his failure to either detect or halt the abuse of veterans needing medical care. That’s a positive development since the focus of our public officials on the affairs of government should always be on correcting misbehavior whether or not someone’s political ox is being gored.

But there is one thing about the VA scandal that is similar to past administration problems. Despite Shinseki’s poor performance in his office—he’s been head of the VA since the president took office, meaning that he’s presided over years of patient problems—up until the scandal completely blew up there was no sign of any displeasure about him from the White House. And even once it became clear that he had utterly failed to deal with these problems and had seemed to have little idea of how to even spin this disaster—as yesterday’s Senate hearings made clear—his job appeared to be safe.

As with everything else that is bad that goes on in Washington in the age of Obama, the VA scandal appears to be something that the president just reads about in the newspapers. Like the illegal discrimination against conservative groups at the IRS and the Justice Department’s spying practices and, most memorably, the mismanagement and incompetence at the Department of Health and Human Services during the ObamaCare rollout, the president’s management style is absentee and often downright uninterested in performance. Rather than react to criticism of his administration by cleaning house when necessary, his instinct—even on issues like the VA where partisanship is not a factor—is to hunker down and stonewall. While the focus on Obama’s efforts to expand the reach of government power and to downgrade our alliances with friends rightly gets most of the attention from critics, the VA scandal and the slow and incoherent response from the White House demonstrates that the president’s inability to govern effectively is potentially as dangerous as his misconceptions about the purpose of government or American power.

Judging by the statements of both Shinseki and White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough yesterday, this administration seems still to be in a state of denial about the potential implications of the problems of the VA. Splitting hairs on the question of whether the veterans who were kept waiting endlessly for medical services died as a result of the delays or some other reason isn’t the best way to demonstrate concern or a sense of urgency about the problem. Shinseki came across at his Senate hearing as a middle manager with a flatline personality unable to muster much emotion even when he was claiming to be “mad as hell” about the scandal. Both he and McDonough—who was strongly pressed on the issue by CNN’s Jake Tapper—were in denial about the fact that they had ignored complaints and warnings on these abuses for years until it blew up in their faces.

But the point here isn’t so much about the outrageous behavior at the VA which—like the IRS scandal—can’t be blamed on a rogue regional office but is part of a culture of corruption that appears to be systemic. Just as the administration’s reflex action on the IRS, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, and any other contentious issue you can think of, the administration’s instinct here is to obfuscate and cover up. The standard practice is to hide the truth no matter what the cause of concern. And even when the public is informed of the problem, the administration goes into its normal damage-control routine that centers on minimizing the damage to them rather than to the public.

Moreover, President Obama’s instinct even on non-partisan problems is to resist making changes in his administration. It is almost as if he thinks it is beneath his dignity to respond to public outrage and that damaged Cabinet officials must keep their jobs in spite of justified calls for their removal rather than because of them.

We can expect that Shinseki will eventually be carefully removed once the furor over the VA dies down much in the same manner of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But by then the damage will have been done, both to ill veterans and to the public’s confidence in their government. Having an absentee president more interested in demonstrating his contempt for critics and establishing that he can’t be pressured is bad for the health of our former soldiers as well as for the republic they bled to defend.

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Both Parties Face Traps on Benghazi, IRS

A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.

The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.

There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.

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A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.

The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.

There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.

If all this exasperates Democrats, it’s understandable since they thought that they had already finished weathering the storm of Obama’s scandal-plagued 2013.

After ducking for cover in the wake of the revelations about the IRS’s targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups, the confusing inconclusive narrative that House investigators were able elicit from witnesses diluted public outrage. And when Lois Lerner, the key figure in the scandal, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination—but only after making a statement declaring her innocence and seemingly waving those rights—that led to a partisan squabble in the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa that allowed Democrats to portray the whole thing as a witch hunt led by an intemperate partisan. That most Democrats voted not to charge Lerner with contempt for refusing to testify shows that they believe not only that there is no scandal but that Republicans will pay a price for pursuing it.

As for Benghazi, the sheer volume of congressional investigations about Benghazi that performed little in the way of actual probing similarly fed the impression that the country was ready to move on rather than searching for more answers.

But the discovery of a smoking gun email from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes that seemed to speak of doctoring the talking points about Benghazi in order to downplay talk of terrorism and reinforce the false narrative about the attack being a case of film criticism run amok has reignited the controversy. House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to finally seat a select committee to investigate the matter may have come a year too late since the chaotic and largely incompetent hearings on the issue have done much to give former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration underlings cover. Democrats are divided as to what to do about the Benghazi committee because they are unsure whether taking part in the hearings will lend credence to the GOP probe or if staying away will make it easier for Gowdy to lead the probe toward dangerous territory for the administration.

But rather than solely focus on how much rope to give Republicans to hang themselves, Democrats shouldn’t blithely assume that Gowdy will not uncover more embarrassing revelations about the various aspects of the tragedy, including the failure to heed warnings about terrorism as well as the misleading talking points. Just as Republicans need to worry about playing their roles as dogged pursuers of the truth rather than a political attack squad, so, too, Democrats need to be careful not to overplay their hand.

Democrats acted this week as if they think they have nothing to lose in defending Lerner against contempt charges or stopping the GOP from forcing her to divulge whether anyone higher up in the government food chain had a role in the targeting of conservatives. By the same token, they seem to think that obstructing or mocking the Benghazi investigation will only help them in the midterms as well as protect Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects.

Yet if Republicans conduct a serious investigation of Benghazi—as Gowdy intends to do—Democrats would be wise to join the South Carolinian in pursuit of the truth. If the probe comes up with nothing embarrassing for the administration and Clinton, they will have lost nothing. But if the select committee—which will have subpoena power and legal counsels conducting a thorough legal process—does learn that the Rhodes email was just the tip of the iceberg, then they, and not the Republicans, will be the big losers if they continue to kibitz on the sidelines. 

The ability of the administration and the media to table these stories is finished, and the sooner Democrats realize that the better off they will be.

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What’s To Be Done About Lois Lerner?

The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.

But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.

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The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.

But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.

We don’t know if, as many conservatives seem to take as an article of faith, Lerner and other IRS officials were acting on orders from higher up in the food chain. Given Lerner’s own past tangles with conservatives, there is good reason to believe she was an eager participant and perhaps was responding to the open hints about targeting conservatives and Tea Partiers issued by an administration determined to demonize their opponents. But given that there is little chance that Holder will act decisively to find out the truth about the IRS, the only way Lerner can be persuaded to talk is if Issa and his colleagues find a way to get her back in the witness chair prepared to talk.

As he seems to have done successfully with the fallout from the Benghazi terror attack and the lies told by administration figures about what happened, the president is seeking to run out the clock on the IRS. A year after the initial news that provoked outrage and even an apology of sorts from Obama, the mainstream press has moved on and Democrats are dismissing the issue as a partisan talking point rather than a blatant violation of trust that ought to concern both parties. To some extent this is the fault of Issa and House Republicans who have preferred to engage in verbal fisticuffs with Democrats rather than engaging them in an investigation that the president and his party would like to terminate. But no matter who’s fault this is, unless Republicans act soon to use their leverage with Lerner to get her to tell the truth, it will soon be too late to get to the bottom of a an act of criminal misbehavior that cries out for justice.

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The IRS’s Political Bias Goes Hollywood

Last week we learned that the FBI has no plans to prosecute anyone for their participation in the IRS’s unlawful discrimination against conservative and Tea Party groups. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the FBI’s failure to interview any of the victims of the tax agency’s political bias casts doubt on the investigation. Like the congressional hearings of the scandal last spring, accountability for this outrageous conduct has been stymied by partisan wrangling and a refusal on the part of the administration or much of the mainstream press to treat the issue with the seriousness that such dangerous abuse of the powerful IRS deserves. But the assumption even on the part of many of the IRS’s frustrated critics was that the illegal behavior had been stopped and the miscreants replaced, as the agency’s new leaders told Congress, with a return to scrupulous neutrality. But, as a front-page story in today’s New York Times informs us, that assumption appears to be mistaken.

That isn’t the lede of the piece about a group called Friends of Abe, a group of approximately 1,500 conservative-leaning members of the entertainment industry. The organization promotes gatherings of like-minded right-wingers in Hollywood and seeks the same non-profit 501(c)(3) status that was granted Norman Lear’s People for the American Way, a liberal group with a considerably higher profile. But, like the Tea Party groups featured in last year’s IRS scandal, the Friends of Abe have been waiting for more than two years to receive a ruling on their request. In the meantime, the IRS has subjected them to highly irregular demands for their membership list and advanced access to their website.

The demand for that information—and the group’s principled refusal to comply—highlights the perilous professional risks for Hollywood conservatives who acknowledge their political leanings before achieving fame. That’s why only a few members of Friends of Abe, such as actors Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, and Kelsey Grammer and writer/director Lionel Chetwynd, have identified themselves. But the real issue here is why the IRS has been stalling a tiny conservative group because of questions about the speakers they invite to their off-the-record dinners and meetings while a bevy of left-wing Hollywood groups whose involvement in political issues is a matter of record have not encountered such IRS challenges.

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Last week we learned that the FBI has no plans to prosecute anyone for their participation in the IRS’s unlawful discrimination against conservative and Tea Party groups. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the FBI’s failure to interview any of the victims of the tax agency’s political bias casts doubt on the investigation. Like the congressional hearings of the scandal last spring, accountability for this outrageous conduct has been stymied by partisan wrangling and a refusal on the part of the administration or much of the mainstream press to treat the issue with the seriousness that such dangerous abuse of the powerful IRS deserves. But the assumption even on the part of many of the IRS’s frustrated critics was that the illegal behavior had been stopped and the miscreants replaced, as the agency’s new leaders told Congress, with a return to scrupulous neutrality. But, as a front-page story in today’s New York Times informs us, that assumption appears to be mistaken.

That isn’t the lede of the piece about a group called Friends of Abe, a group of approximately 1,500 conservative-leaning members of the entertainment industry. The organization promotes gatherings of like-minded right-wingers in Hollywood and seeks the same non-profit 501(c)(3) status that was granted Norman Lear’s People for the American Way, a liberal group with a considerably higher profile. But, like the Tea Party groups featured in last year’s IRS scandal, the Friends of Abe have been waiting for more than two years to receive a ruling on their request. In the meantime, the IRS has subjected them to highly irregular demands for their membership list and advanced access to their website.

The demand for that information—and the group’s principled refusal to comply—highlights the perilous professional risks for Hollywood conservatives who acknowledge their political leanings before achieving fame. That’s why only a few members of Friends of Abe, such as actors Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, and Kelsey Grammer and writer/director Lionel Chetwynd, have identified themselves. But the real issue here is why the IRS has been stalling a tiny conservative group because of questions about the speakers they invite to their off-the-record dinners and meetings while a bevy of left-wing Hollywood groups whose involvement in political issues is a matter of record have not encountered such IRS challenges.

As the Times notes, there is no shortage of Hollywood-based liberal non-profits that spend heavily to promote their political point of view on a host of issues that interest the elites of the entertainment industry. The difference between those groups and the Friends of Abe is stark in terms of their ability to mobilize actors and others who work in film and TV as well as in the willingness of their backers to be open about their political affiliation. Where Lear’s group and others founded by the likes of Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio spend heavily, and bathe happily in the glow of publicity that promotes their causes as well as it enhances the careers of their members, the Friends of Abe seems to operate more like a support group for wary members of a discriminated minority. Not only is their membership list a closely held secret, but no photographs are permitted at their meetings and dinners to protect the identities of those in attendance lest they be outed as conservatives and consequently subjected to the informal but undeniable blacklisting that anyone so designated is forced to suffer in Hollywood.

A recent example of just how dangerous it is for even an established figure to contradict liberal orthodoxy came when actress Maria Conchita Alonso was forced to leave a production of a San Francisco production of The Vagina Monologues because of the anger generated by her decision to tape an ad in support of a Tea Party candidate for governor of California.

But the issue here isn’t so much the facts of political life in the entertainment industry as it is the two-year delay and the extraordinary level of scrutiny the IRS has directed at the Friends of Abe. If, as one former IRS official interviewed by the Times said, the group is only inviting conservatives and Republicans to its meetings, that is automatically treated as a red flag to agency investigators. But does anyone think for a moment that the groups fronted by Lear, Damon, or DiCaprio are evenhanded in their dinner invitations or their approach to politics and the issues they promote?

Even a cursory look at this controversy would make it clear that the IRS is stalling and obstructing the efforts of a conservative-leaning non-profit while never subjecting the far-more-blatant partisan activities of a group like People for the American Way to the same microscopic examination. While we were told that new rules and stricter supervision of the supposedly “rogue” IRS agents in the Cincinnati IRS office would solve the agency’s problems, the subsequent treatment of the Friends of Abe shows that far from being the modus operandi of one rogue field office, the problem is systemic. What is needed is not a closer look at the activities of isolated right-wingers but far greater scrutiny of the outrageous conduct and political bias of the Obama Internal Revenue Service.

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FBI Feeds Cynicism About IRS Scandal

After several months of virtual radio silence in the mainstream press about the IRS scandal, the over-the-top coverage afforded Chris Christie’s Bridgegate fiasco reminded conservatives of the way many in the media downplayed the outrageous accounts of the government’s bias against conservative political groups. But the IRS affair got back into the news in its own right today as the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI is unlikely to prosecute anyone for the practice in which organizations affiliated with the Tea Party and other conservatives causes were specifically targeted for discriminatory treatment.

This is bound to fuel further complaints from Republicans who have been frustrated with the administration’s low-key response to a scandal based in a policy they think may have been inspired by the president’s personal biases against conservative groups as well as the liberal belief that Tea Party-affiliated organizations don’t deserve non-profit status. After initially adopting a defensive tone and agreeing that any discrimination was wrong, the party line from the White House has been that the problems were the result of the mistakes made by rogue low-level officials working in Cincinnati and that any talk about a scandal is mere GOP propaganda. That position will be bolstered by the FBI decision. But, as the Journal’s report notes, there is a big problem with the investigation that was conducted: apparently nobody in the FBI has contacted any of the groups that were the object of the agency’s special attentions. This is likely to only deepen the cynicism felt by many on the right toward an administration that doesn’t seem particularly fired up about holding the tax collectors accountable for their misdeeds.

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After several months of virtual radio silence in the mainstream press about the IRS scandal, the over-the-top coverage afforded Chris Christie’s Bridgegate fiasco reminded conservatives of the way many in the media downplayed the outrageous accounts of the government’s bias against conservative political groups. But the IRS affair got back into the news in its own right today as the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI is unlikely to prosecute anyone for the practice in which organizations affiliated with the Tea Party and other conservatives causes were specifically targeted for discriminatory treatment.

This is bound to fuel further complaints from Republicans who have been frustrated with the administration’s low-key response to a scandal based in a policy they think may have been inspired by the president’s personal biases against conservative groups as well as the liberal belief that Tea Party-affiliated organizations don’t deserve non-profit status. After initially adopting a defensive tone and agreeing that any discrimination was wrong, the party line from the White House has been that the problems were the result of the mistakes made by rogue low-level officials working in Cincinnati and that any talk about a scandal is mere GOP propaganda. That position will be bolstered by the FBI decision. But, as the Journal’s report notes, there is a big problem with the investigation that was conducted: apparently nobody in the FBI has contacted any of the groups that were the object of the agency’s special attentions. This is likely to only deepen the cynicism felt by many on the right toward an administration that doesn’t seem particularly fired up about holding the tax collectors accountable for their misdeeds.

The sensitivity of this case is the product of both the blatantly political nature of the BOLO (be on the lookout for) orders that were sent out about groups seeking non-profit status for their public education efforts and the immense power of the IRS. That the IRS seemed to be following the administration’s marching orders in treating conservative efforts to take advantage of the change in the law after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision raised serious suspicions. But the revelations last spring about the agency’s inquisitions directed at Tea Partiers and delays in making decisions prompted congressional investigations that were, at least in part, short-circuited by the lack of candid answers from IRS officials like Lois Lerner who went so far as to invoke the Fifth Amendment when questioned by Congress last May.

It should be acknowledged that prosecutions in a case involving interpretations of policy would not be simple. But there appeared to be grounds to think laws involving the misuse and improper disclosure of taxpayer information were violated by those involved. However, the FBI seems to have taken a “no harm, no foul” approach to the case in which the lack of a smoking gun about the agency “hunting” conservatives rather than merely applying discriminatory policies appears to be working to stifle any impulse to prosecute.

However, this merciful approach to IRS personnel and their political superiors seems at variance with that agency’s usual approach to taxpayers. It is well known that citizens who claim to have been confused by complicated tax regulations or that they acted on the advice of their lawyers are generally shown no mercy by implacable IRS agents who haul taxpayers into court for minor violations of confusing statutes.

Even worse, the fact that the FBI chose not even to interview groups that have claimed discrimination casts doubt on the seriousness of the investigation and whether the normally indictment-happy Justice Department lacked the will to pursue the case.

As I wrote in December, the administration is hoping to put a close to this controversy by altering the rules to make it difficult, if not impossible for groups that aim at promoting political change—be it from a right-wing or a left-wing point of view—to become non-profits. While technically neutral, this change will have a disproportionate impact on conservative groups since they are far more dependent on 501(c) status than their rivals on the left. This should concern all Americans no matter their politics since giving the IRS that much power to suppress the free speech of political activists poses a grave threat to democracy. The way the agency has been used to regulate political activity is perhaps the most serious scandal here, but combined with the failure of the government to ensure that those who ordered and carried out discriminatory policies are held accountable makes it even worse.

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Latest IRS Scandal? Changing the Rules.

Earlier this year, the nation was outraged to learn that the Internal Revenue Service was singling out conservative and religious groups for discriminatory treatment when they applied for non-profit status. That scandal—which went to the heart of the Obama administration’s abuse of power and disregard for constitutional principles—briefly held center stage in Washington as agency officials failed to adequately explain how this could have happened and the cover story that the policy was only the fault of a few rogue administrators in Cincinnati fell apart. But, as is par for the course with the 24/7 news cycle, other stories, such as the NSA spying leaks, the government shutdown, and the ObamaCare rollout fiasco soon replaced it. It’s likely that the White House is hoping that the whole affair is now safely shoved down the country’s memory hole.

They may be right about that. Last week, the IRS unveiled an end-run around the problem of illegally targeting conservatives with a rules change. The new policy would reverse a 54-year-old regulation and essentially eliminate an entire class of advocacy groups that just happens to be used by far more right-wing activists than left-wingers. But to ensure that this transparently political maneuver by an agency that is supposed to be above partisanship got as little coverage as possible, the change was announced Tuesday with the rule only being posted on the Federal Register on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The pre-holiday news dump was largely successful as the development was buried over the long weekend. But the proposed change, which would severely limit the ability of advocacy groups to gain the crucial advantage afforded by those with tax-exempt-status, should not go unchallenged. The shift would essentially legalize the attempt by some in the IRS to target activists that came under fire back in the spring. Changing the rules in this manner is merely another effort by liberals to regulate and suppress political speech.

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Earlier this year, the nation was outraged to learn that the Internal Revenue Service was singling out conservative and religious groups for discriminatory treatment when they applied for non-profit status. That scandal—which went to the heart of the Obama administration’s abuse of power and disregard for constitutional principles—briefly held center stage in Washington as agency officials failed to adequately explain how this could have happened and the cover story that the policy was only the fault of a few rogue administrators in Cincinnati fell apart. But, as is par for the course with the 24/7 news cycle, other stories, such as the NSA spying leaks, the government shutdown, and the ObamaCare rollout fiasco soon replaced it. It’s likely that the White House is hoping that the whole affair is now safely shoved down the country’s memory hole.

They may be right about that. Last week, the IRS unveiled an end-run around the problem of illegally targeting conservatives with a rules change. The new policy would reverse a 54-year-old regulation and essentially eliminate an entire class of advocacy groups that just happens to be used by far more right-wing activists than left-wingers. But to ensure that this transparently political maneuver by an agency that is supposed to be above partisanship got as little coverage as possible, the change was announced Tuesday with the rule only being posted on the Federal Register on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The pre-holiday news dump was largely successful as the development was buried over the long weekend. But the proposed change, which would severely limit the ability of advocacy groups to gain the crucial advantage afforded by those with tax-exempt-status, should not go unchallenged. The shift would essentially legalize the attempt by some in the IRS to target activists that came under fire back in the spring. Changing the rules in this manner is merely another effort by liberals to regulate and suppress political speech.

At the height of the scandal in which IRS officials indefensibly singled out groups associated with the Tea Party or other conservative causes and faith groups for delays and denials, there were many liberals who argued that the problem was only that the government had been sloppy about the manner in which some activists were flagged. They claimed the real problem was not the way in which the government discriminated against some of those seeking non-profit status but the entire idea that any of those involved in advocacy on issues should be granted protection from the tax collectors. The goal, they said, should be to prevent groups with political purposes from becoming non-profits.

Critics of the existing rules were right when they noted that the old rules were vague. A 1959 government ruling allowed an organization set up under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code to have the status of social welfare groups “if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” That has been interpreted as letting groups spend a substantial portion of their funds on political advocacy, albeit after undergoing a subjective evaluation by the IRS that, as we now know, was tilted heavily against conservatives. Greater clarity was needed, but rather than merely eliminate the biases, what the IRS is proposing is to alter the rules to make it difficult, if not impossible for groups that aim at promoting political change—be it from a right-wing or a left-wing point of view—to become non-profits.

That might seem fair to some, but it will go a long way toward silencing grass roots groups that cannot build upon the advantages built into the system for other players on the political stage such as unions or business associations that will not be affected by the new IRS policy.

As even a liberal outlet like NPR noted, in one of the few stories published or broadcast about the issue in the last week, this will have a disproportionate impact on conservative advocacy which is far more dependent on 501(c) groups than their rivals on the left. But, like the various attempts to promulgate campaign finance “reform,” the real object is suppression of political speech.

Critics of allowing advocacy groups to gain non-profit status speak of their efforts as essentially theft from the public treasury, just as they regard tax cuts which allow citizens to keep more of the money they have earned to be a gift from Uncle Sam. But such arguments look at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. The real issue here is not whether there is something wrong with more grass roots and other advocacy groups being allowed to fund raise and not be forced to reveal their donors. Rather, it is the liberal panic that ensued after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down efforts by the government to ban certain kinds of political speech under the guise of campaign reform in their 2010 Citizens United decision. That ruling allowed more individuals and groups to make their voices heard and led to an increase in the number of social welfare groups that spoke out on the issues. The IRS scandal was part of a government effort to repress that rising tide of activism. The new rules will therefore complete the work the so-called rogues of Cincinnati started.

The IRS policy would put a crimp into conservative efforts until a new way around the rules is found, as is inevitable with such regulations. But the victim here isn’t conservatism; it’s democracy. Those who delight in making life difficult for Tea Party activists should understand that giving the IRS this kind of power over speech will ultimately hamper liberal grass roots groups as much as those of conservatives. Participation by citizen groups—even those we disagree with—should be protected, not made more onerous. These new rules, which will not go into effect until after the next election, should not be allowed to go into effect. The real and ongoing IRS scandal is the way the agency has been used to regulate political activity. That isn’t the job of the IRS or any branch of government, and American democracy will be more secure once such efforts are outlawed.

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Like the Mississippi, the IRS Scandal Just Keeps Rolling Along

The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel, like some of her colleagues (especially Peggy Noonan) and her paper’s incomparable editorial page, continue to cover the IRS scandal and add perspective to it.

Writing in her column today, Ms. Strassel points out that congressional investigators this week released emails suggesting that staff at the Federal Election Commission inappropriately targeted conservative groups–and they relied on the help of the IRS’s Lois Lerner.

For the IRS to share information with the FEC would of course be illegal–and this is yet more evidence that another one of Barack Obama’s “phony scandals” just got worse. Like the Mississippi, the IRS scandal just keeps rolling along.

A few additional thoughts on it:

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The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel, like some of her colleagues (especially Peggy Noonan) and her paper’s incomparable editorial page, continue to cover the IRS scandal and add perspective to it.

Writing in her column today, Ms. Strassel points out that congressional investigators this week released emails suggesting that staff at the Federal Election Commission inappropriately targeted conservative groups–and they relied on the help of the IRS’s Lois Lerner.

For the IRS to share information with the FEC would of course be illegal–and this is yet more evidence that another one of Barack Obama’s “phony scandals” just got worse. Like the Mississippi, the IRS scandal just keeps rolling along.

A few additional thoughts on it:

1. The latest finding means that a scandal that originally involved simply (!) the IRS is now government-wide. And this is not just your garden-variety scandal; it involves a staggering abuse of power by one of the most powerful agencies in the entire American government.

2. The latest finding makes it clear that Lerner, who worked at the FEC for nearly a decade and demonstrated animus toward conservatives, is a key figure in untangling this story. Republicans need to put legal pressure on her and perhaps, at the right moment, offer her some level of immunity to find out what more she knows. Ms. Lerner is obviously a focal point in this whole investigation. If she begins to talk, the stone wall that has been built around this scandal may begin to crumble.

3. To their credit, Republicans are investigating this matter in a methodical and comprehensive manner. They’re not frenetic. They’ve been careful, for the most part, to keep their rhetoric restrained and tied to what we know. It’ll take time for this to story to fully unfold. Fine and well. There’s no urgency. Republicans should take their time to turn over every possible stone.

4. My guess is that when the president announced last week that Republicans were obsessed with “phony scandals,” he was revealing just how worried he is about this scandal and how explosive it might be. He has no interest in getting to the bottom of it, perhaps because he’s fearful of how widespread this whole thing is.

5. It’s worth recalling that once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, liberals and the elite media worried a lot about the abuse of power by government, especially using an agency as powerful as the IRS. Indeed, one of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon included his alleged misuse of the IRS. But this story, like so many other scandals/negative stories involving the Obama administration, seems wholly uninteresting to them (with a few honorable exceptions, like Fox News and the Journal). But the nature of this scandal may eventually make it impossible even for most of the left-leaning media to ignore.

6. The events surrounding the IRS/FEC will further accelerate what has been a collapse in confidence in the federal government. It has to, since this story involves such a large, obvious, and feared governmental agency. One of the (unintended) liberal legacies of Barack Obama may well be much greater distrust of the federal government. This is an irony that shouldn’t be lost on Mr. Obama–but probably will be.  

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Should the Government Decide Who Is a “Legitimate” Journalist?

In mid-May, as the IRS scandal finally warranted comment from President Obama, the president gave what would become an oft-repeated and justly mocked response: he learned about it on the news. But while mainstream news publications were indeed carrying the story, the Huffington Post’s media reporter Michael Calderone noted that the national political press had picked up on the story long after conservative blogs did.

The Blaze, Calderone said, raised the prospect that pushy and prying IRS agents seemed to be targeting conservative groups—in early 2012, more than a year before Obama was enlightened by the press. Two weeks after the Blaze report, Colleen Owens blogged about the letters the IRS office in Cincinnati was sending Tea Party groups, and she followed up with more reporting on the issue. Calderone’s explanation of Owens’s work is significant in light of a recent legislative push by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. First, Calderone’s description of Owens:

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In mid-May, as the IRS scandal finally warranted comment from President Obama, the president gave what would become an oft-repeated and justly mocked response: he learned about it on the news. But while mainstream news publications were indeed carrying the story, the Huffington Post’s media reporter Michael Calderone noted that the national political press had picked up on the story long after conservative blogs did.

The Blaze, Calderone said, raised the prospect that pushy and prying IRS agents seemed to be targeting conservative groups—in early 2012, more than a year before Obama was enlightened by the press. Two weeks after the Blaze report, Colleen Owens blogged about the letters the IRS office in Cincinnati was sending Tea Party groups, and she followed up with more reporting on the issue. Calderone’s explanation of Owens’s work is significant in light of a recent legislative push by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. First, Calderone’s description of Owens:

Owens, a stay-at-home mom with no professional journalism experience, told The Huffington Post that she was especially interested in the 2012 IRS letters because of a couple previous instances in which she felt tea party activists were unfairly targeted. She said the IRS sent a similar list of demands in 2011 to organizers of the Virginia Tea Party Convention. Richmond Tea Party, Owens’ local chapter at the time, was audited by the city that same year.

Following the Richmond city audit, Owens asked Jeff Bayard, a friend and the publisher of Right Side News, if she could submit an article on behalf of the Richmond Tea Party. That story, published in Nov. 2011, got picked up by The Drudge Report, and Owens did a couple Fox News interviews.

When learning a few months later about tea party groups receiving IRS letters, Owens said she “started immediately researching, knowing this sounded like a huge story.” She went back to Bayard — on her own, not on behalf of a specific tea party group — and Right Side News published her second story, which included PDFs of letters that groups had received.

“I’m really just an amateur that wanted to write about stories that I thought were big stories,” Owens said, adding that she “just felt like, as a citizen, this was an important story.”

Keep those phrases in mind—Calderone’s description of Owens as a “stay-at-home mom with no professional journalism experience,” and Owens’s contention that she is “really just an amateur that wanted to write about stories that I thought were big stories”—as you read through Dick Durban’s op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times about a federal shield law.

The law would carve out specific protections for journalists to be exempted from having to divulge their sources. Reporters, especially those who cover national politics, would struggle to do their jobs if they couldn’t publish information provided to them anonymously. The concern is that if journalists couldn’t protect their sources, there would be a “chilling effect” on the public’s access to information, especially in cases when the source could be fired or prosecuted (or both) for divulging the information.

Most states already have such shield laws on the books, but Durbin wants a federal law. The problem is that in order to produce this law, the federal government would have to legally define who is a journalist, and who isn’t. And there would almost certainly be a national-security exception to the law (what’s often referred to legislatively as a “compelling public interest”), so the bill wouldn’t change much in practice. That means the federal shield law would really only serve to exclude from existing protections those Durbin and his colleagues don’t consider real journalists.

And that’s not an exaggeration, either. The headline of Durbin’s column is “Sen. Dick Durbin: It’s time to say who’s a real reporter.” It should be noted that the national-security exemptions are not without their merit, either. Even in this age of disclosure and transparency we should remember that there are plenty of secrets that benefit the public only by remaining secret. The government may be in the habit of over-classifying information, but that is not universally true.

Durbin asks: “But who should be considered to be a journalist?” He then seeks to answer his own question:

A journalist gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined “medium” — including newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, magazine, news website, television, radio or motion picture — for public use. This broad definition covers every form of legitimate journalism.

Take a look at that definition, and try to guess whether someone like Owens would qualify. But as Calderone noted, Owens was the one reporting on the IRS story before those Durbin would consider “real journalists.” What if Owens found herself seeking to protect a source? This isn’t just about the occasional conservative blogger, either—though Durbin’s criteria would obviously benefit the largely liberal mainstream press. Last year the Romney presidential campaign sought to exclude BuzzFeed, a website that was at the time relatively new to political reporting, from the campaign’s press pool.

Calderone reported on this controversy as well, and pointed out that the journalists covering the campaign were uncomfortable with the politician, instead of the political press, determining who qualifies as a legitimate news source. A Romney spokeswoman told Calderone: “We do not have a separate blogger pool report.” Calderone continued:

Saul’s comment suggests the campaign may consider BuzzFeed a blog and, for that reason, not eligible to be in the print pool. While BuzzFeed reporters write exclusively online, so do others in the “print” pool, such as The Huffington Post and Yahoo! News. Also, newspaper reporters routinely file dispatches from the trail that only appear online.

It’s not so simple, in other words, to draw that line. And politicians don’t appear to be the best qualified to make that decision. They are often less informed on the changing digital media landscape than news consumers, and they have an obvious interest in excluding some journalists or news outlets from press protections.

Again, that doesn’t mean journalists should always be exempted from the laws that their fellow citizens are held to. And there is no doubt that cases of “compelling public interest” are not automatically a figment of Big Brother’s imagination; they exist. But in a country with robust free-press protections enshrined in the Constitution, asking the United States Senate to narrow those protections seems like a recipe for trouble.

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